Three students receive a check mark for not speaking to their neighbor while the other students start encouraging the rowdy ones to quiet down. Within minutes the classroom is silent, Clone hasn’t said a word and he starts teaching his lesson.
This is one of many examples of how Racine Unified has been actively engaged in rethinking its discipline policies and implementing programs to help create a better environment for teaching. The reason: Civil Rights Data Collection numbers showed that 3 million students are suspended or expelled every year, which causes students to lose time in the classroom and Racine Unified — like many other districts across the United States — has been disproportionately disciplining black students and special education students compared to other groups.
And every school in the district is implementing change in how it’s handling discipline right now. However, some schools have been tackling the issue for four years while others are just beginning the process.
Acknowledging the problem
While black students make up 26 percent of the almost 21,000 students enrolled within Racine Unified in 2011; they represent almost half of the 1,130 in-school suspensions, 54 percent of the out-of school suspensions and 40 percent of the 125 expulsions in the district, according to the Office of Civil Rights Data Collection.
Deputy superintendent Eric Gallien, Olympia Brown elementary teacher Polly Jahnke and Park High School principal Dennis Christensen were invited in July to come to the White House to share what they have learned and learn what successes other school districts had seen in changing how schools broach the issue of school discipline. Hosted by the U.S. Department of Education and Justice, Racine Unified is among 41 school districts nationwide that are doing this work: Those that had seen some success, those just starting to see some improvements in their data, and those that want to learn more about things that need to be done.
“Creating and sustaining safe, supportive schools is absolutely essential to ensuring students can engage in the rich learning experiences they need for success in college, work and life –that’s why rethinking school discipline is critical to boosting student achievement and improving school outcomes,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
While Jahnke and Christensen were recognized for their work at Olympia Brown and at Washington Park, the district recognizes that there is more work to be done and each school in the district is in a different place with implementing the new strategies.
What the district found was that the school environment had changed drastically with social media and electronics. Poverty looks different today than it did 20 and 30 years ago. The residual effects of poverty are different. For many families, poverty is compounded with hopelessness and families run differently because of that. You also have extreme privilege, Gallien said.
“We need people to understand that this is a very different time and we need people to work together,” Gallien said. “These are real issues and we definitely have to deal with them, but we need to rethink how we do it.”
Designing a district-wide response
The Racine Unified School District hired mentors and discipline coaches to help with the implementation process so that teachers can use that staff as resources. Some schools with low test scores like Knapp Elementary and Goodland Elementary extended their school days to eight hours and they implemented formalized discipline strategies.
But the changes have been a process, Christensen said.
“You think, you reflect and adjust… and it’s an ongoing process,” he said. The discipline policies implemented at Park were meant to help students feel safe, welcome and ready to learn for all students.
The positive reinforcement is needed because students are coming from varying degrees of family upbringing, different homes, different degrees of social-economic status and different values. And to create a uniform value system, that’s what the reward system does. But the reward system doesn’t just mean getting a trinket, it’s sometimes just as simple as being recognized at a school assembly where everyone claps for them, Gallien said.
“It doesn’t have to be something you hold on to,” Jahnke said. “We want it to be intrinsic. We want them to know what to do without having to be told and it does work.”
Changes at the elementary school level include positive behavior intervention systems and supports, a discipline strategy that puts more emphasis and recognition on the behavior you want to have happening in schools.
“We’re turning it around and we’re going to reward and acknowledge kids who do something positively in hopes that the kids who aren’t doing it want to do it and see that,” Jahnke said. “And it’s working.”
But Jahnke, Christensen and Gallien acknowledge that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done and most of the changes they’ve seen in behavior have been incremental.
“Society has changed. How people raise their children has changed and we need to work together… and figure out what is the best way to deal with that,” Gallien said.
There are discipline strategies for just about every space in the schools from the classrooms to the hallways to the cafeteria to the bus. But all of those behaviors are modeled with an emphasis on showing kids what respect, honesty, and responsibility looks like.
For Clone that means giving his students reward points for a number of things, including being respectful, prepared, kind and helpful, listening, good during transition time, teamwork, participating, and being on task. Later the kids that have accumulated enough points can go to the school store to get pencils, erasers or little rubber toys. But each teacher also offers extra things like additional computer time, lunch with a staff member, or special seating for the day.
Sometimes when a few of his students do simple things like turning papers into him on time or sit quietly and they still expect rewards. Clone wonders if they are creating a sense of entitlement in kids.
“It’s a powerful thing and it works, but I’ve also got a concern of whether we’re raising kids that are doing these things and they always expect something in return,” Clone said. “I brought this up to our principal and she calls an acknowledgment, not a reward. If I think of it that way to me it feels a little better.”